Mukilteo chaplains provide 24/7 support in times of tragedy

MUKILTEO — The phone could ring at any time. Early in the morning, late at night or right before dinner. No matter the time, the chaplains of the Mukilteo Police Department will pick up it up.

Chaplain Pat Ward carries three electronic devices at all times: a pager (Ward calls it an “ancient” device), a work cellphone and a personal cellphone.

She is ready for anything.

Ward, Micki Shulkind and Paula Drake, all of Mukilteo, are the city’s first responder chaplains.

When first responders are called to a scene, the chaplains are trained to work alongside them with the wisdom to comfort community members in times of tragedy.

The chaplains offer support to law enforcement officers, victims, families and other members of the community.

A ringing phone in the middle of the night could be a call to a scene of death. Ward will always go. “I have a peace about what I do,” she said.

The path

Before she became a chaplain, Ward worked at a phone company, owned a share of a travel agency and worked in the funeral business.

“Working in the funeral business was the only work I ever missed,” Ward said.

After the funeral business closed, Ward attended a meeting where longtime friend Jack Geer spoke about his post-retirement career as a chaplain at the Snohomish County Jail.

“Before he sat down, I knew my next career would be chaplaincy,” Ward said.

Since 2006, she has been a chaplain for the Mukilteo Police Department and Lake Stevens Fire Department.

Earlier in life, Shulkind worked as a personal trainer at the local YMCA. It was Shulkind’s son who encouraged her to pursue chaplaincy.

While studying at the Princeton Theological Seminary, he suggested his mother apply for a part-time chaplain program. She applied on a whim and was accepted.

Shulkind just recently started working for Mukilteo police but has been a chaplain for more than 10 years.

Besides working as a chaplain in Mukilteo, Drake is the director of emergency services at Evergreen Speedway and owns Second Wind Training Center.

Before becoming a chaplain, Drake volunteered at the Mukilteo Fire Department. In times of tragedy, Drake’s colleagues would ask her to deliver the notification of death or other difficult news to families.

“It felt like a natural responsibility to me on those incidents where some spiritual support might be needed,” Drake said.

A couple of years after beginning her volunteer work at the Mukilteo Fire Department, the chief at the time, Jack Colbath, approached Drake and asked her to become a chaplain.

She accepted.

The training

Ward, Shulkind and Drake are all graduates of the Burien Police and Fire Department Chaplain Academy.

The weeklong program began in 2002 and is held twice a year. After 54 hours of training, students are ready to begin their ministry.

“We are training them for every line of duty — funerals, ride-alongs and taking care of any emotional challenges,” said Frank Washburn, the executive director at Tacoma Pierce County Chaplaincy.

More than 500 chaplains from as far away as the Philippines and Papua New Guinea have been trained at the Burien Police and Fire Department Chaplain Academy.

“Being a chaplain is a ministry of presence,” Washburn said. “It’s the most important thing we do.”

Although chaplains are typically a part of the Christian tradition, they are trained to assist people who follow any creed. Whether one is Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, chaplains are prepared to support anyone in times of crisis.

The prayer

Before arriving on a scene, all three chaplains pray.

Drake prepares by collecting as much information about those she is serving. Not knowing anything about their past, faith or community, the chaplains arrive with no preconceived notions.

“The challenge is to gain a personal relationship of trust with people in a very short period of time,” Drake said.

“The chaplains live in the city and that’s an asset for us,” Mukilteo Police officer Colt Davis said. “They can identify more with the citizens they talk to.”

Although the Mukilteo Police Department chaplains have ministered for years, there is still no protocol for dealing with tragedy.

“No two cases have ever been alike,” Ward said. “Walking into a home, there’s no formula.”

The home

When a chaplain arrives at the scene, the police will brief them. Police leave if they must respond to another call. Chaplains stay at the house with the people in need.

“I call it a sacred moment, to be with families,” Shulkind said.

Chaplains call on the families’ own supporters, whether that be other family members, friends or spiritual advisers.

“You are visiting people on probably the worst day of their life,” Drake said.

Chaplains also assist loved ones with funeral decision-making and stay at the scene until the body is transferred to the funeral home.

“I love being able to do this because I do realize that not everyone can,” Ward said.

According to Ward, first-response chaplains have always been strongly backed by the Mukilteo Police Department.

“They are our support network,” Davis said.

After times of dire stress and grief, the chaplains rejuvenate through conversation.

“We as chaplains need to debrief about all the things we see,” Shulkind said. “A lot of the times we will get together for coffee and just talk about the calls we’ve had.”

When Paula Drake is asked what enables her to deal with so much grief, her response is simple.

“My belief in eternal life,” Drake said. “Death doesn’t bother me.”

Drake has delivered six babies during her career but also views being in the room when someone dies as an equally rewarding and beautiful experience.

“That doesn’t diminish grief and that doesn’t mean I enjoy the circumstances surrounding death, but the actual process of death is a very peaceful thing,” Drake said. “I don’t believe it is the end, I believe it is a step to something else.”

All three chaplains admit they individually bring something unique to a situation. Collectively, however, all strive to bring community members in the midst of tragedy to a state of peace.

“It gives me more satisfaction than all the other things I’ve done in my career,” Ward said. “How blessed am I that when I get to retire, somewhere down the line, the last thing I did was the best thing.”

Brenna Holland: 425-339-5350; bholland@heraldnet.com.

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